Jews: How Vichy Made It Worse

Persécutions et entraides dans la France occupée: comment 75% des Juifs en France ont échappé à la mort [Persecutions and Mutual Help in Occupied France: How 75 Percent of the Jews of France Escaped Death]

by Jacques Semelin
Paris: Seuil-Les Arènes, 901 pp., r29.00 (paper)
AFP/Getty Images
Jewish deportees at the Drancy transit camp outside Paris, 1942

It’s called “the French paradox.” On the one hand the Germans, with the assistance of the actively anti-Semitic Vichy government and of a certain number of actively anti-Semitic French citizens, deported a shocking number of the Jews living in France between 1940 and 1944 to their deaths. On the other hand, the proportion of Jews deported from France was much smaller than that deported from the Netherlands, Belgium, or Norway. Is it not curious that among the Nazi-dominated countries of Western Europe the country reputedly most anti-Semitic had one of the highest survival rates? In that region only Denmark and Italy lost a lower proportion of their Jewish population.

About a quarter of the Jews who were living in France between 1942, when the deportations began, and 1944 were murdered. Double that proportion—roughly half—of the Jews living in Belgium and Norway during the same period were killed. The loss in the Netherlands was a catastrophic 73 percent. Why such disparities? What set France apart?

Jacques Semelin contends that the answer is assistance by French individuals, along with voluntary organizations, both Jewish and non-Jewish, rooted in a generally sympathetic public opinion. Much of his long book consists of a detailed analysis of the manifold ways Jews survived in France, either by their own ingenuity or with the aid of others, during the deportation period: from the first train, on March 27, 1942, to the last, on August 17, 1944. The basic raw material consists of personal testimonies: diaries or notes kept during the occupation period by six persons (not all of whom survived) plus postwar written and/or verbal testimonies by seventeen survivors: ten French citizens and seven foreign or stateless Jews who lived in France. About sixty other eyewitness statements are used to illustrate particular points.

Rescue efforts undoubtedly helped save many thousands of Jewish lives in occupied France. It is impossible to determine an exact number, of course, because some of the people involved were no longer living when studies were carried out, or did not care to speak about that painful time. A total of 3,654 French people have been inscribed as “Righteous Among the Nations” at the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem, as non-Jewish persons who aided Jews in danger of death at some risk to themselves, in third place behind only Poland and the Netherlands. The French government has proudly memorialized them with a plaque in the Pantheon. That number is surely only a small sample.

But did French people aid Jews more frequently than other Western Europeans? Semelin never says so outright, to be sure, yet he seems to imply as much, since he claims to be looking for “traits specific to French society.” No detailed comparison of rates of rescue efforts seems to exist, but no country affected by Nazism lacked such…

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